Fights in the Schoolyard

When I was at school every now and then a group of kids would suddenly gather around in a circle while the chant of “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” echoed off the brick walls of the quad. That chant was enough to get kids running from all over, drawn by the sudden outbreak of drama amidst the listless torpor of the lunch break. Sometimes there was actually a fight, but just as often there’d be a piece of paper, strewn on the ground by a crew keen to inject a brief moment of interest into the day.


I’m reminded of those manufactured fights often when I see media coverage of issues in science where some kind of fight is manufactured where there is nothing of the sort going on. Nowhere does this seem more apparent than in the coverage regarding the consensus on climate change. It’s an interesting case study. 


It came up again today thanks to this coverage of a pretty comprehensive review of the available literature on climate change suggested 97% of published work supports the role of human activity in climate change. The other 3% includes about 0.7% actually denying the link and 2.2% where it’s unclear what the authors thought. This is not the first example of such a review. A particular favourite of mine was the effort that produced this chart


Yet, as highlighted in the Guardian article, the public seems to think there is a great deal of dispute in the scientific world. So why would this be? Well, the media probably does play a part. It’s more interesting for the media consumer to be shown a story with some sense of tension than total agreement. Utopian concord is excellent for the commune, but anathema to editors. So in the media, airplay is often given to those with a contrary opinion either in the guise of “balance” (which is questionable as you have effectively just given the discredited view the semblance of much more support by placing it on an even footing) or just because conflict creates interest, just like in the schoolyard. 


That practice isn’t going to change. If you actually set up a representative panel on this, the transcript would run something along the lines of:

Interviewer: So, Professor Zephaniah Greenhouse, you have indicated that your latest research shows that the latest climate measurements support the previously proposed models more strongly than had been anticipated. This is obviously controversial stuff. 

Prof ZG: Well, actually, it pretty much matches what everyone in the area has been saying for a long time now. 

Interviewer: Well, here to call that into question is Professor Jacinta Hydrocarbon. Professor, is it fair to say that these sorts of findings will cause a fresh debate on climate science? 

Prof JH: Not really. It’s just more confirmation on a similar theme. I’m with Zeph.


Boring. That interviewer now has minutes to fill. You can’t just broadcast a screensaver with “The Girl from Ipanema” to fill the space. So why should we be surprised  that any rent-a-comment pundit who is happy to ignore or twist the stuff that’s actually out there and who is happy to pick a fight will be the one sitting in front of the static cityscape railing against environmentalist conspiracies? It’s guaranteed conflict and it fills all that blank space  between plugging vacuum cleaners and hair removal technology.


The other side of this is again the need of scientists to work ever harder in getting the message out. There’s not much point decrying the quality of the media coverage without trying to raise the level. Or you could enlist others to spread the word. It might just be that the biggest hope for climate scientists looking to convince denialists once and for all lies in the corporate world. If all the businesses who believe the science start declaring this more stridently, there’s little doubt that the media will have to move on to the next fight. 


In the meantime, the same theme recurs. The message doesn’t spread itself. 


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